Part Six – “Essential Services‘
“You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm,” Colette
Malta, Montana got its name from the spin of a globe and a finger that landed on the island of Malta in the Mediterranean, or so they say. Daphne and Clay swung south out of town on to Route 191. If they had kept going west on Route 2, they would continue on what is called the Hi-Line. It pretty much follows the tracks of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railroad across northern Montana just south of the Canadian border. Daphne thought it might be nice someday to drive the Hi-Line west of here to Glacier National Park; but not today. This was not a road trip. They weren’t sightseeing. This was a hauling-ass-back-to-the-ranch-to-outrun-the-virus kind of trip.
Clay had filled up at the one gas station open in Malta so they could make it back with ease. But was she at ease? Was Clay? There were still a lot of unknowns. Could she be carrying the virus and give it to Clay. Highly unlikely, but she did come in contact with some people along the way. But they all looked pretty healthy, weren’t old, didn’t cough or sneeze once, and didn’t shout or whisper both of which would have spewed flu. And Clay had been quarantined for three weeks on the ranch; just him and the cows and the cat. He just went to the grocery store and didn’t see any strangers except for the gas station guy in Malta and the cashier at the Truck Stop where he got the sandwiches and water. Nobody coughed or sneezed or even spoke a word. No spew. No flu.
Early that morning at Devils Lake, Daphne had definitely felt like she was in an episode of “The Twilight Zone”. “Imagine you are on a road somewhere between science and superstition; things and ideas; reality and fantasy. Unlock this door to another dimension with the key of imagination…Nee, nee, nee, nee; nee, nee, nee, nee…”
But as they had pulled out of the rail station that afternoon, Daphne had thought about the last shot of “The Graduate“. And now another movie crept into Daphne’s malleable mind. Was she running away like Hoffman in “Marathon Man“? “Is it safe?” said the evil Nazi character played by Larry Olivier. “Would it really be safe here in Montana from the virus?” she worried. Montana, the fourth largest state in the Union with around a million people, had the fewest cases in the country and Phillips County, that they were leaving, had none and Sweet Grass County, where they were headed, had none. (For perspective, Sweet Grass County is about the size of Rhode Island and has about 3700 people and not one stoplight.) Yes, it was as safe a bet as one could make nowadays where every day felt like every other day and every night brought nightmares. Where a cough filled her with anxiety. Every sniffle brought fear. “It’s all in your head,” Clay would say if he knew she was ricocheting between fear and the thrill of freedom.
Looking out the windshield, the road stretched in a straight line and looked like it went on forever. The flatness of the prairie land began to take over her mind and the Big Sky started to open up her heart. She took a side-glance at Clay intently driving. She smiled. Maybe for a while the drive would be like the train, a safe cocoon; unless they were stopped by the highway patrol for crossing county lines.
“They’ll understand. You need to be safe with me. “I need you home. I have a bum shoulder and a bad knee. I need the help. You’re essential. To me anyway,” he grinned.
Clay hadn’t told anybody that Daphne was coming home. Since they all knew she was in New York, she might be carrying the plague and they might want to keep their distance. Of course, this wasn’t much different from the attitude that anybody coming from the East (anywhere east of North Dakota, that is) must be carrying all kinds of diseases including uppity attitudes. But that was like the pot calling the kettle black, as far as Daphne was concerned. Rural folk could be “stuck in their ways” and “uppity” too. And they were not all that neighborly sometimes sticking to their clans and being distrustful of another clan. But Daphne planned on staying on the ranch for at least the fourteen-day mandatory quarantine anyway. So everybody should be safe. She had “proved up” once and she would do it again.
As the road rolled on and on, Daphne took that imagination key and unlocked the door to another time. She was back in 1910. If she squinted her eyes as they passed an old homestead, she imagined a prairie wife sipping tea from her good china cup that she lovingly had brought from Kalamazoo. There are a lot of abandoned homes, churches and other slapdash structures in Montana. Nobody bothers to tear any of them down. They serve to bear testament to the many hard and cruel ways that Mother Nature inflicts her will on earthlings; and vice versa. Yes, earthlings inflict damage too. Along this road, if you took a slight detour, you could go a bit further back in time around 1880 and discover a ghost town where people came to pick and hack the earth for gold. There you would find the foundations of a church, a bar, and a brothel. “Essential services,” she mused.
If you went back a bit further in time to 1877, she could imagine seeing the weary and starving Nez Perce Indians trying desperately to get to Canada only a few hundred miles to the North where Sitting Bull of the Sioux would welcome them. They had fought their way from Idaho for over a thousand miles. Not far from here the U.S. Army finally defeated them. Even though the Nez Perce warriors would become legends as the fiercest fighters the white man had ever fought, most would end their lives weak and broken.
It was not far from here near the Bear Paw Mountains that Chief Joseph would surrender and speak words that have become famous. “Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever.”
Daphne could not compare her flight with that of the Nez Perce. She had no illusions that she had ever been very down trodden. She had never been in a fight. She had been hungry but never starving. She suddenly felt a whoosh of reality sweep over her. She was entering the land of “Shit Happens” and “Cowboy Up”. Her predicament was pretty paltry compared to the Nez Perce. Yes, that’s another thing that coming back to Montana always did to her. Montana was grand but it made her feel her smallness, her insignificance. It also made her understand her place in the pecking order; the food chain. Any moment she could get snatched up. Yes, she was darn lucky that a giant beak had not yet swooped her up. Or a giant grill fork from an alien spaceship had not skewered her for their barbecue. Not yet, but that day was coming.
“But not today,” she said defiantly. But she said it to herself so as not to freak out Clay.
Not much else to say about the rest of the trip. The scenery never really changed. Oh yeh, there was a small mountain range on one side; then another one on the other side. Clay had no idea what they were. “Little Rockies”, “Little Snowies”, “Big Snowies”? He shrugged, “never been all the way to Malta. Never been to this country.”
They passed a few Semi tractor trailer trucks, but hardly saw a pickup or another car. There was the occasional abandoned grain elevator. There was the town of Roy: population 108. It had a taxidermy shop and the Bohemian Gas Station and Café and that was about it. Lewistown was the biggest town: population 6,000. It is in the dead center of the state.
Speaking of dead, Daphne checked to make sure the Grand Duchess Olya was doing okay. She turned and craned her neck to look in the backseat. Olya smiled and handed her a ham and cheese sandwich and a can of sparkling water from the cooler Clay had stuck in the back. Then Olya fell back to sleep.
Could you see ghosts in the daytime? Seems as if it’s best to spy them around twilight or break of day. They appear a bit wispy then. Maybe they can take on different shapes in the day so as not to scare people. Maybe they were dogs or cats or cows. No, probably not cows.
“I think they are more like traveling companions,” she thought. They are good for company. But now she had Clay. Clay was the love of her life, but he had always been an erratic kind of company. He could disappear for hours doing ranch chores or bull shitting with his cronies in town. Don’t let any man tell you that they don’t gossip like women do. They do. They just don’t call it that. They will say the difference is that they don’t spread rumors or talk bad about people. Maybe that’s true; maybe not. Do women grouse more than men? Do they put other women down more than men do to men? Well, some women in town do and some don’t.
Daphne liked to separate people into those who thought deeply and then those who just chattered; caught in the shallows. But even that wasn’t simple. She had found great wisdom coming from some chatterers. She just had to challenge them a bit. Then they stopped chattering and said something thoughtful. They tried thinking for themselves instead of repeating something they heard. Might have just lost practice. Clay thought for himself most of the time. But he occasionally came up with some knee jerk remark mostly to get Daphne’s goat and sometimes he meant it. But she could shove him away off that idea with a flurry of facts that she had read and dazzled him into an epiphany. “Didn’t know that” or “Different way of looking at it,” he would say. And when she got on her high horse, he had a gentle way of grabbing her and settling her back down on the ground. “Don’t preach and don’t look your down your nose,” he’d remind her, “Better to say, ‘I just don’t see it that way.”
Clay, like Daphne had his imagination too. He wrote dark poems and stories. He had all kinds of different characters. In his latest story, he had a hooker for a sister who married a preacher and found God. This story was clearly influenced by the virus as it had him isolated on the ranch and dreaming of next week when the governor lifted the stay-at-home orders. Then he would be going to the bar and watching the dancing girls. Maybe he’d take one or maybe all three home. But that was all in his head. He’d just end up lonely because there were no dancing girls at the bar in town. He called that poem “Frustration” and had sent it to her before she left on the train. Since it was kind of funny but not terribly uplifting, she hadn’t mentioned it. He never whined in real life, but in his poems and stories he did feel a bit sorry for himself mostly in a funny way. He called one “Body Parts”; another “Insanity”; and “The Bottle” which was about drinking, of course. He wrote a lot about his wife leaving him or about missing his wife. His most moving pieces were about `horses; his grandpa’s horse “King” and his long time companion “Pepper”. Of course, horses, cows and dogs can’t just up and leave you like a wife can. But come to think of it, the poems were about dead horses.
She snapped back to reality.
“Hungry?” she asked Clay.
“Sure, but be careful when you peel the plastic back,” he said.
“Oh, so you are worried I’ll give you the crud,” she said.
“No, but maybe you could get it from the wrap. I got it at a truck stop. Don’t know who made it, ” he muttered again.
“Oh brother, this is going to be a pain in the ass,” she muttered back. But she did as she was told and peeled the cellophane back as carefully as she could and handed it to him. Then wiped the can of water with the disinfectant wipes and placed it in the cup holder. Then she took out a Wet One and wiped her hands.
“I can spray you with Arlene’s Magic Mist,” she smiled.
He gave one of those, “Don’t you try it” looks. So she sprayed herself instead, sighed and looked out the window.
The last hour and a half had a bit more variety, as they got closer to Big Timber. They headed past the great windmill farm at Judith’s Gap and passed the ICBM missile silos although you couldn’t really see them and you weren’t supposed to know they were there.
Once they hit the former railroad town of Harlowton, they were almost home. The Crazy Mountains loomed large to the West and in another twenty minutes they were crossing the Yellowstone River right where Lewis and Clark (or was it just Clark?) had spent the night on their way back East.
Even for a Sunday and even for this little town of 1500, the streets were eerily quiet like the ones in Chicago she’d seen from the train. The town sits on Interstate 90 and “The Fort” that supplied gas, groceries, guns and other gizmos was usually crowded with cars, trucks, horse trailers and RVs. Not today. Nobody around. The former “Frosty Freeze” was now a Chinese take-out restaurant. So the sign had a Snowman next to the new name “Wok-N-Roll”. But it was closed for the day. The town was pretty dead. You could literally see the tumbleweeds blowing thru town. Even for a lonesome town in a lonesome county in a lonesome state, it was really quiet.
“Just perfect for another quarantine,” Daphne noted, “Nothing to do anyway.”
They drove over the Interstate that was also deserted. Then a mile up the frontage road, there curled up against the hills was the ranch. They drove up the lane past the cows that were in the pasture close to the ranch house. As Clay was two-thirds into calving season there were lots of calves scampering about. The cows nearest the lane popped up their heads and gave a look at the car and Daphne stared back at them. The cows didn’t care about the virus. They had their own concerns.
“Oh look! The Sandhill cranes are here,” she cried. It always felt like spring and better days to come when the cranes showed up. They showed up in pairs to look for good spots for their nests. It was their summer home. They say they mate for life.
But as they got close to the ranch house, she always got a little sad. Her dog Teegan would not be there to run out of the yard and up to the car. Teegan had died in 2015 and neither of them had the heart or the will to get another dog. The cat would have to do, so Daphne grabbed her purse, her can of disinfectant and entered the house.
“I’m home, Coco,” she cried out. Daphne unpacked a few things, and, after awhile Coco appeared and rubbed up against her leg. Lots of purring ensued by Daphne and Coco.
“I guess “home” is where the heart is, as clichéd as that sounded, she reasoned. “Maybe home was where somebody or something actually missed you; or home was wherever there was somebody to talk to who actually listened; or home was just a place to be alive and look out at something nice.
Daphne and Clay went to bed early that night and fell asleep less than six feet apart. In the middle of the night, she could hear the train whistle as the coal train rumbled along the Yellowstone. It was a very soothing sound.
The next morning Daphne got up early at 5AM which was 7AM Eastern Time. She made herself a latte and opened up her iPad and read some blogs. Around 7AM, Clay appeared from the bedroom and said, “I gotta go check the cows.”
And so her first day back at the ranch wasn’t much different than before. There is no clock time on a ranch. There’s a routine. She had her routine and Clay had his; nothing romantic or special or crazy. It was just the same. And you know, she thought, that was good enough.
That night when the light was slowly heading out of town and the night train attendant was drawing her curtain across the day, Daphne said “goodbye” to the Duchess who was seated in a beautiful sleigh of black and gold. The night was cold and Olya was bundled in sable furs with a large robe across her lap.
“I must keep heading North,” she said as she sipped her White Russian cocktail from a sparking crystal glass that looked like it was made of ice, “My sister is waiting for me. You’ll be fine. Nothing will find you here.”
Then she leaned in to Daphne and added in words Daphne had never heard her use before, “And ignore all this alone/together bull honkey. You’re lucky. Some people are really alone. You’re together so don’t mess it up. Be brave, woman, but don’t behave if you don’t have to; and try to make yourself useful…essential. But above all, enjoy the ride.”
And with that, she disappeared into the starry night. “Poof!”